That did not look like a team that just got dumptrucked by 44 total points last weekend in Los Angeles.
Above all else, that’s the most important thing that came from the Arizona Wildcats’ 95-88 overtime loss Thursday night at ASU.
Sure, they’re on a three-game skid and have no real shot at winning the Pac-12, and probably not much of a shot to get into the NCAA tournament (other than as the Pac-12 tourney champ). But after how bad they looked in losses of 80-57 at USC and 90-69 at UCLA, games they never had a shot at, to go to OT on the road with yet another shorthanded lineup is worth recognizing.
In most years, that would be far from acceptable. But this isn’t like most seasons.
How will Arizona build off this performance a week from now when Pac-12 leader Washington comes to Tucson? That’s a discussion for another time. For now, let’s focus on what transpired in Tempe.
Arizona needs all its key players, not just most
Those blowout losses at USC and UCLA showed just how important Chase Jeter has been to Arizona’s season, offensively and defensively. So when reports from pregame warmups indicated Jeter was ready to return to action, the Wildcats’ prospects massively improved.
But then news came down that freshman guard Brandon Williams, who was coming off a stellar game at UCLA, was sitting out because of a knee sprain suffered late in that game.
Had Jeter returned like no time had passed, this trade-off might not have been that significant. But he wasn’t—coach Sean Miller said Jeter was “about 40 or 50 percent”—and therefore Williams’ absence was huge.
Jeter had seven points and eight minutes in 31 minutes off the bench, but it was about as bad a game as you could have with such numbers. He made only 1 of 5 field goal attempts and was 5 of 8 from the line, missing three in overtime, and on the defensive end any lingering affects from his back injury seemed to have a much greater impact.
The good news is that Arizona’s next game is a week away, which gives Jeter a lot of time to rest and get back to 100 percent. Same goes for Williams, who could have been the difference had he been able to dish, drive and drain like he’s capable of.
Ryan Luther finally lived up to his preseason hype
Before ever playing a game for Arizona, Luther was billed as the kind of stretch 4 that would make for a major matchup nightmare. A guy who could drain threes with great frequency and also provide valuable rebounding.
Yet for most of his lone season in Tucson, Luther had been more of a dud than a dream. He’d been particularly horrid as a starter, going 7 of 28 from the field (and 0 for 10 from three) in three Pac-12 starts, the last two in place of Jeter.
He started again against ASU, but this time he was money. The senior had 19 points—his most with Arizona—on 6-of-10 shooting including 5 of 8 from deep, and nine rebounds.
“He did a good job on offense,” Miller said. “I don’t know if his offense equaled his defensive lapses” (More on that later).
Many of Luther’s perimeter shots were wide open, the result of strong team passing led by Justin Coleman’s Arizona-high nine assists. Many of those were on drive-and-dish plays where ASU left Luther all alone outside and paid for it.
The Sun Devils figured out that oft-used play eventually, resulting in Luther not taking a shot in the final five minutes of regulation or in overtime. The trick is for Arizona to have multiple versions of it so when an opponent starts keying on the first type there are other options for Luther to score.
The defense has become a liability
Jeter not being at 100 percent played a big part, but he’s far from the only reason ASU shot 55.6 percent including an astounding 16 of 22 (72.7 percent!!!) in the second half.
He wasn’t responsible for keeping ASU’s Remy Martin from going off for 31, five days after UCLA’s Kris Wilkes had 34. USC big man Nick Rakocevic going 13 of 17 last week? That’s something Jeter could have at least minimized had he been available.
But he wasn’t, and Arizona’s already thin frontcourt was left out on an island last week. They might have been in that position again had Jeter not been able to go, yet neither Luther or Ira Lee did much of anything on the defensive end. They combined for six defensive rebounds in 58 total minutes.
Dylan Smith had arguably his worst defensive game as a Wildcat, frequently getting beat off the dribble or poorly defending a jump shot and landing on the shooter. He fouled out in 27 minutes, and bench guards Alex Barcello and Devonaire Doutrive were major liabilities on defense.
“We just couldn’t guard the guy in front of us,” Miller said. “That’s the hardest defense to solve because there is really no easy answer.”
ASU averaged 1.23 points per possession, this after the Wildcats allowed 1.29 PPP at UCLA. Arizona is now 57th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com; it was a top 25 defensive team before Jeter went down.
Arizona was able to make due with bad defense last year because of how good it was with the ball. This team is so inconsistent on offense—14 of 28 from three but 13 of 39 from two?!?!?!—that it can’t afford to be so giving on the other end.